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Tito Muñoz conducts Juilliard Orchestra. Photo by Claudio Papapietro
At Lincoln Center’s Alice Tull Hall on the evening of Saturday, January 27th, I had the immense pleasure of attending a superb concert of twentieth century symphonic music—continuing a terrific season—presented by the marvelous Juilliard Orchestra, here under the remarkable direction of Tito Muñoz.
The program began brilliantly with a splendid account of Silvio Revueltas’s extraordinary, too infrequently played Sensemayá, based on a poem by Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén. An amazing soloist, Fangzhou Ye, then entered the stage for an excellent performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s awesome Piano Concerto No. 2. The initial Andantino movement opens reflectively but soon becomes more passionate—even volatile—for much of its length, although it ends quietly. The brisk, ensuing—and appropriately and characteristically playful—Scherzo—marked Vivace—is virtuosic, propulsive and colorful, while theModeratomovement that follows is dramatic and portentous but with some meditative—as well as some quirkier, more jocular—passages, eventually acquiring a dance-like, almost jazzy rhythm, but it also ends softly and somewhat abruptly. The finale—an Allegro tempestuoso—is more hurried in pace at the outset, but becomes more measured, even lyrical, if eventually more agitated and concludes very excitingly.
The second half of the program was even stronger, comprised of a thrilling realization of Igor Stravinsky’s dazzling ballet score, Petrouchka, in its 1947 revision. The artists deservedly received an enthusiastic ovation.
Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Andris Nelsons, Music Director and Conductor with Seong-Jin Cho, Piano. Photo by Chris Lee
At Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium on the evening of Monday, January 29th, I had the pleasure of attending an excellent performance—the first of two on consecutive nights—of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, admirably conducted by Andris Nelsons. The second concert was a presentation of Dmitri Shostakovich’s remarkable opera after a famous story by Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. (The same narrative was later memorably filmed in Yugoslavia as Siberian Lady Macbeth—released in 1962—by the great Polish director, Andrzej Wajda.)
The program opened promisingly with a marvelous realization of Tania León’s challenging but rewarding Stride from 2019—according to the program note by Robert Kirzinger, it was “composed on a commission from the New York Philharmonic, premiered in 2020, and won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Music”—which is notable especially for its compelling orchestration. The composer’s statement on it is worth quoting in full:
When the New York Philharmonic reached out to me about writing for this project celebrating the 19th Amendment, I confess I only knew about it generally. I started doing research, reading Susan B. Anthony’s biography, her statements. It was tremendous to see the inner force that she had. Then I started looking for a title before starting the piece—not the way I usually do it. The word “stride” reflected how I imagined her way of not taking “no” for an answer. She kept pushing and pushing and moving forward, walking with firm steps until she got the whole thing done. That is precisely what I mean by Stride. Stride has some of what, to me, are American musical influences, or at least American musical connotations. For example, there is a section where you can hear the horns with the wa-wa plunger, reminiscent of Louis Armstrong, getting that growl. It doesn’t have to be indicative of any particular skin tone; it has to do with the American spirit. When I discovered American music, Louis Armstrong actually was the first sound that struck me. When I moved here, the only composers I knew anything about were Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin. The night I arrived at Kennedy Airport, I was picked up by a Cuban couple from the Bronx, who allowed me to stay on their sofa. I looked at the stairs outside of their building, and I started crying “Maria!” They were confused, and I explained that in Cuba I’d heard the song by Leonard Bernstein. I later worked with Bernstein, and we were very close in his later years. When I first arrived here I couldn’t speak English … but I knew how to say “Maria.”
The composer, who attended the event, afterward ascended to the stage to receive the audience’s acclaim.
An amazing soloist, Korean virtuoso Seong-Jin Cho, then joined the musicians for a brilliant rendition of Maurice Ravel’s awesome Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. In a discussion with critic and musicologist M. D. Calvocoressi, the composer affirmed that: “In a work of this sort, it is essential to avoid the impression of insufficient weight in the sound-texture, as compared to a solo part for two hands. So I have used a style that is more in keeping with the consciously imposing style of the traditional concerto.” The piece begins ominously and builds to an apotheosis; the piano then enters dramatically with a cadenza that quickly becomes characteristically Impressionistic in style, a passage that Ravel described as “like an improvisation.” The orchestral interludes in this Lento section attain a considerable grandeur. At its outset, the Allegro that comprises the balance of the work has a quasi-martial ethos reminiscent of music in the early scores of Igor Stravinsky, although before long it is abundantly inflected with jazzy elements with some playful measures. The composer commented that, “Only gradually is one aware that the jazz episode is actually built up from the themes of the first section.” The concerto concludes powerfully, if abruptly. An enthusiastic ovation elicited a dazzling encore which was one of the highlights of the program: Franz Liszt’s exquisite Consolation No. 3 in D-flat Major.
The second half of the evening was comparable in strength, consisting of an accomplished reading of Stravinsky’s magnificent The Rite of Spring, Pictures from Pagan Russia. The first part, The Adoration of the Earth, has a stunning and sudden climax, while the second, The Sacrifice, also closes exhilaratingly. The artists were ardently applauded.
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